The following is the second in a series of three excerpts from David Ranney’s longer piece “Reflections: Well, How Did I Get Here?”
Prior to going away to college, my interaction with Black people had been limited conversations with a Black cleaning woman named Louise. I loved her and would go down the basement of our house after school when she was ironing shirts and listening to the Black radio stations. She always gave me a big hug and a smile and asked me about my day. But I never really questioned why she couldn’t live in town and why my mother gave her special dishes and silverware for her lunch. The rise of the Civil Rights Movement began to make me reflect on that and begin to understand both systemic and individual racism. But nothing had more of an impact me in this regard than my friendship with a man named Rudy Lombard.
In the summer of 1961, I was getting ready to go to graduate school. I had a full scholarship complete with a stipend for living expenses at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I knew nothing about the program I had applied to including exactly where Syracuse University was. I was working that summer as a Cleveland Zoo guide, driving a tour train throughout the grounds. I made fairly good money and, since I did not have upcoming school expenses, I was able to purchase a VW Bug. That fall I packed up the Bug with all of my belongings and headed for Syracuse, New York. From the years of driving to Dartmouth College from Cleveland, I remember passing an exit on the interstate to Syracuse. I took that exit and made my way to a gas station where I bought a map of the city (no GPS in those days) and figured out how to get to the University Housing Office so I could find a place to live. They had temporarily assigned me a dorm room complete with roommate. I decided I had had enough of dorms and roommates and looked on the office bulletin board where they had listings of apartments for graduate students. I readily found one and moved my stuff in there.
The next morning I was scheduled to meet with my advisor and my fellow grad students. There were only five of us in the meeting—two professors (Alan “Scotty” Campbell, a political scientist and Seymour Sacks, an economist) and three students who were the very first students signed up for the new Metropolitan Studies Program I was joining. The three of us were all just out of college. We introduced ourselves. Susan Fleiss Lowenstein was from New York. The other was Rudy Lombard, a tall handsome black man from New Orleans. He had gone to Xavier University, an all black New Orleans school. Susan was married and was living with her husband in a married student housing complex. I asked Rudy where he was living.
“There are a lot of listings on the board at the University Housing office.”
“I’ve looked at all of them. When I went I was told they were already rented.” He then laughed.
“That can’t possibly be true.”
“You really are clueless, Dave. What they don’t tell you is that they don’t rent to Negroes.”
I was truly stunned and very embarrassed. “I really am sorry. I guess I thought that only happened in the South. Is there anything I can do? The Housing Office certainly should not post them if that is the case.”
“That’s okay. I ran into a white guy I know from the Civil Rights Movement. He’ll get an apartment for the two of us and I’ll just move in. It will probably work out. We’ll get to the Housing Office later. I’ll let you know and you can be with us then.”
Rudy and I became really good friends. Most importantly for me was that he really turned my head around and got me to see the world as it really is. I knew my mother was raised in the racist South and carried the attitudes she learned from childhood. I had heard some of my relatives use the N word. I had heard racist remarks by my high school friends and knew that black people couldn’t live in Lakewood Ohio. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I knew that the national fraternity I belonged to was white only until we integrated it by welcoming a black student. Of course I had read of the workings of the Klan and the resistance to school desegregation and voting rights in the South. But, somehow, I hadn’t realized the depth of racism in the U.S., including in the North. And I really had not given any of this any thought…until now…until I became good friends with Rudy. But I had grown up with a sense of fairness and human decency toward others, which left me open to eventually embrace not only the Civil Rights Movement but all sorts of radical movements that would come my way.
I spent a lot of time with Rudy – we studied together and partied together. He introduced me to likeminded friends including George Wiley, a black chemistry professor who eventually gave up his tenured faculty position to join the movement full time and to become the founder of the Welfare Rights Organization. He introduced me to some of the black athletes as he organized a strike over their racist treatment by the Athletic Department and the University generally. And Rudy recruited me to participate in my first demonstration demanding the City of Syracuse pass an open housing ordinance and forcing the University to join in.
One day on our way to class, Rudy pointed to an office door where the name of the professor was displayed. “Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
“You know this guy? He’s a friend of Scotty’s,” he declared.
“No. I heard he was on leave and thinking of going into politics.”
“He and a sociologist named Nathan Glazer just published a racist monograph called The Negro Family. It’s a good example of academics blaming the victims of racism by claiming we don’t have stable families. You should read it. I’m going to organize a demonstration in front of this office. If you agree with me, maybe you can join us. Moynihan’s not here but he’ll hear about it,” Rudy laughed.
I did read it and found myself at my second demonstration with about 30 other students passing out flyers about why The Negro Family was racist. We had quite a discussion in our Metropolitan Studies class with Scotty and about 20 other students. Scotty said that Moynihan told him we had hurt his feelings. I don’t remember much about the discussion but Scotty ultimately supported us and also announced that he was debating a very reactionary City Council member on the proposed open housing ordinance. We all went and cheered him on.
When I first met Rudy he was dedicated to non-violence as a tactic in the Civil Rights Movement. He made it clear to me that he was not a pacifist. But he believed that they would be able to win over the vast majority of people in the U.S. if they faced the violence of the Klan in the South with courage and the moral righteousness of their cause. Rudy had begun his activism in his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 1950s. As a student at Xavier University in Louisiana, he organized a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and became National Vice President of that organization. He was also active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While at Xavier in 1960 he organized a number of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and was arrested and sent to jail after being convicted of “malicious mischief.” His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where in 1960 the justices voted 6-1 that his arrest was unconstitutional. His case, Lombard v. Louisiana, was one of the Supreme Court cases that established that discrimination based on race in places of public accommodation was unconstitutional.
In 1961, Rudy, as a member of CORE and SNCC helped organize the Freedom Rides movement in which black activists rode interstate busses into the segregated South. Despite the fact that Supreme Court cases had declared that segregated seating on interstate busses and segregated interstate transportation facilities was illegal, people were still being arrested for violating local laws that supported such segregation. The Freedom Riders were met with extreme violence by white mobs—busses were set on fire and riders were beaten with baseball bats as local police looked on. It took President Kennedy and his brother Robert to summon Federal marshals to stop the violence.
When he came to Syracuse in 1961 Rudy was a seasoned activist and he immediately established a chapter of CORE with George Wiley. This is the context of my start as an activist with the open housing demonstrations and later (1965) our demonstration over the release of the so-called Moynihan Report.
One year after entering Syracuse and meeting Rudy, I spent a year as a student intern with the Ford Foundation and the government of the State of West Bengal in Calcutta, India. When I returned in 1963, I found Rudy somewhat changed. I recall shortly after I got back I was visiting Rudy and his roommate on the front porch of a house where they had an apartment. Rudy asked me if I had become further radicalized by my experience in India. As we began to discuss that and his own experiences in Civil Rights activities, some white guy walked up the three stairs on the porch and standing in front of us said: “I didn’t know they let N…rs in this neighborhood.” We all stood up and Rudy stepped forward and slugged the guy right in the face with such force he was knocked off the porch. The guy got up and ran away. The non-violence tactic was wearing thin! The violence of the Klan and white mobs in the South was having an impact and the non-violence stance of King and other civil rights leaders was being questioned.
The following year the Syracuse CORE chapter was organizing demonstrations opposing a city Urban Renewal plan that would eliminate a black neighborhood and replace the housing with government buildings. I participated in some of these. In the summer of 1964 I went home and worked to earn money so I could continue to pursue my Ph. D degree. Rudy participated in a massive voting rights campaign in the South. SNCC had offices where they trained civil rights workers in Greenwood, Mississippi. The campaign was known as Freedom Summer. In June of that year, three of the SNCC activists in Greenwood were brutally tortured and murdered by the Klan. Among the killers were a county sheriff and his deputy. Rudy told me that the sheriff had sent word to him that if he were to come to his jurisdiction they would get him too. Later he was almost lynched in Louisiana as he participated in a voter rights drive there.
Rudy returned to Syracuse in August that summer. Before he left, I had told him that prior to leaving Calcutta there had been rumors of CIA actions in Vietnam as a civil war between communists and nationalists had broken out. During my return from Southeast Asia, I had also seen first hand evidence that the U.S. was bombing communist positions in Northern Thailand. These were secret (and illegal) actions on the part of the U.S. CIA and military. In August, Lyndon Johnson was President following the assassination of President Kennedy. He came to the Syracuse campus to help dedicate a new building. Rudy and I decided to watch and sat on the grass in front of the building. There was a long delay of his talk and we were told he was dealing with a serious policy matter. When he appeared, he told us that he had to change his speech and tell us about a serious incident in Southeast Asia. He then claimed that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American naval ship and the ship had returned fire. It was the famous Gulf of Tonkin incident. The so-called attack by the Vietnamese was a lie but Congress passed a resolution on August 10, 1964 giving President Johnson the go-ahead to launch the Vietnam War. I recall Rudy and me looking at each other and me saying that this was bullshit. He smiled and nodded. He saw a connection early on between the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. He was later joined by other Civil Rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King. But from that moment on I became a committed anti-war activist.
I recall at one point we were called to the Dean’s Office and told we had to take a loyalty oath to the United States in order to retain our scholarships. Our money came from something called the National Defense Education Act. We had some national defense money. I told him I needed the money to finish my degree yet found it hard to take such an oath. He said he agreed with me on all counts but counseled a little civil disobedience was in order.
“So we’ll go to the dean’s office together. When you raise your hand to take the oath put your other hand behind your back and cross our fingers. It will be ok.”
Rudy and I lost touch for a time after we got our degrees. I began my academic career and Rudy continued to press on civil rights in the South. But we met up years later in the 1990s and resumed our friendship. Rudy chose not to pursue an academic career despite earning a Ph. D. He did many things over the years. He ran for Mayor of New Orleans. He interviewed black chefs in New Orleans and wrote a book about them that included their favorite recipes. He also started a financial investment firm. He did some work with a former black athlete from Syracuse who was a lawyer heading up the National Basketball Players Association. Rudy’s job was to help young athletes invest and handle their money. In the early 2000s, at some point he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He beat the cancer and headed up a research project with some of the doctors at Northwestern University Medical School on the link between the diet of black men and their rates of cancer.
I met with him on and off during the 1990’s until 2014. In the early part of that year I called him and told him I had written a book that I wanted to give to him. He told me he had been in the hospital but I could come over to his apartment and we could go to lunch somewhere nearby. When I saw him I was a bit shocked as he had lost a lot of weight but said he was ok. What I didn’t know (and he was not telling anyone) was that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and it was terminal. In late Summer I got an invitation for Pat and me to go to New Orleans for a special get together to honor Rudy. We went to New Orleans in October. He and his family and friends had organized a three-day party to celebrate his life – a sort of wake for himself that he could still attend. It was a remarkable affair. Most of the people there had been in CORE and SNCC and many struggles in the South. There were parties and a special tour of New Orleans. I recall one guy getting on the bus for the tour. He took one look at everyone and said: “I’m going to sit in the front because the last time I rode a bus with you folks the Klan set it on fire.”
The last time I spoke to Rudy was at one of the parties in New Orleans. He was clearly exhausted and couldn’t stand. I came up and gave him a big hug and said,
“Thanks old friend for turning my head around so I could see the world as it really is and for encouraging me to do something about it.”
He hugged back and smiled and then said. “You were easy, man. You were easy.”
Rudy died two months later. Those words mean a great deal to me.